You stand behind your chair and hoist your brand new Reebok bag up on to your shoulders. You check to see if your shirt is tucked in, but the weight of the rucksack and your general awkwardness make any on-the-go wardrobe adjustments impractical and inelegant. Just tap your fingers on the table instead, you think. That’ll make you look cool and nonchalant. A broken light buzzes and flickers overhead. A faded clock-face screams that break time is nearly here. A rumble of chairs above tells you that others are packing away now, too. Mrs Archer stands stern and firm at the front of the room. Her unshakeable glare and an almost imperceptible eyebrow shift suggest that you should stop the table drumming this instant if you wish to avoid a verbal lashing. Fold your arms and look somewhere else, you idiot! Once again, you berate yourself for doing the wrong thing.
All is still and silent. The clock hands continue their lonesome strides across the barren seconds and minutes. Time is not slipping by unnoticed today, like it does usually.
A click, and the stillness is shaken. The bell wails and the room shudders and trembles as the hoards charge towards the doorway. Elbows, kneecaps, the stamp of eager feet: hundreds of bodies swamp the maze of corridors that lead towards the canteen. It’s rush hour for teenagers: chaotic, violent, and out of control. Mr Shetland arrives at his duty post and observes the ensuing mayhem. He munches on an apple and feebly points his fingers and utters ineffective words. Nothing changes. The madness heightens.
There are only fifteen minutes of freedom available, and you have many tasks to complete in that time. Your course to the lunch hall to meet Tina and Hanna is a gravelly road indeed. Try not to tumble down two flights of stairs; sprint across the yard without getting caught by a teacher or laughed at by an older kid; push through the hundreds of pairs of year 11 legs to get to the front of the snack queue. And the corridors: the endless corridors. You have to pick up your lab coat for science next lesson, and it’s in your locker. Your locker is on the Geography corridor at the other end of the school. The thought of going there fills you with dread. Maybe I could say I left it at home? Your mind is awash with potential excuses as you desperately try to think of a way to avoid going to fetch it. Nah, Miss O’Neill will kill me if I forget it. You remember last time: the shrillness of her voice, and the snotty note she wrote to your mum in your planner. Shrugging off the memory and admitting defeat, you make your way over there.
Locker number 101. You are too young to notice the irony. It’s about the size of your Reebok bag, contains your PE kit, lab coat and German dictionary, and is guarded by a huge silver padlock that your dad used to use for the garage. It’s on the bottom row, right in the middle. The stampede is still flowing through the Geography floor. You pick a moment and dive towards the ground, gripping a tiny key in your fingers. You are swift: the door swings open within seconds. Hand on lab coat, you are ready to stand again and make your escape, when suddenly, the human tidal wave crashes and consumes you, and your forehead makes its acquaintance with the sticky, gum-covered linoleum floor. Boot to the face. Trainer to the rib. You see nothing but school shoes and frayed trouser hems. A year 10 boy trips and slumps on top of you, his Lynx-soaked body weighing heavily on your bird-like frame. The air fills with uproarious laughter and shrieks of “OHHHHHH! She fell over! GUTTED!” The second wave is one of shame and embarrassment; you’re on the floor… again. And the clock, which was previously so sombre, so forgiving and so slow, has raced on and now your science lesson starts in less than three minutes. Can’t be late. Stand up; brush the dust off your bum and the stupefied look of shock off your face. Stuff your lab coat into your bag. Run as quickly as you can.
You awake from the daydream and take in more familiar, calm surroundings. The kids are strolling past you in single file, all smiling and wishing you a good morning. No pushing. No shoving. No jibes. No jostles. Some people hear of this and say you are ‘extreme’, that ‘no excuses’ are harmful, and that walking in silence in the corridor is too ‘militant’. And you remember the corridors and the fear and the dread and the loathing and the horror, and the words of the naysayers do nothing to perturb you or shake your faith in the environment you have helped to build.
The pupils snake gently into their classrooms and the doors close. Empty corridors. Mission accomplished.